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A new Sharif in town

What does Nawaz Sharif’s victory mean for India?

The Pakistan Muslim League (N) has emerged as a decisive winner in Pakistan’s general elections held on May 11.  The embattled incumbent, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), was routed in Punjab, and save for Sindh (which accounted for 29 of 32 seats won by the PPP) failed to make an impact in any other province.  Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) succeeded in bringing out first-time voters, but managed to win a majority only in Kyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

The religious jamaats Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) and the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Fazal-ur-Rehman (JUI(F)) failed to make an impact.  And while the elections themselves were largely successful, voter turnout in Balochistan was between 15-20 less than 3 per cent, further accentuating the troubled province’s security situation and disenchantment with the Pakistani state.

But what does all this mean to India?

Nawaz Sharif, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal days before the election, indicated that he wanted to improve ties with India and the U.S.  In this regard, it is quite possible that the long-delayed granting of Most Favored Nation (MFN) status to India will be approved within Mr. Sharif’s first few months in office.  However, it is important that policy makers in India not read too much into what is essentially a symbolic gesture of little real consequence to India.

For India, it is important to remember that the height of the Kashmir insurgency flourished during Pakistan’s most “democratic” decade — the 1990s.  Pakistan test-fired its “Islamic” nuclear bomb and waged an undeclared war on India in Kargil during democratic regimes.  Indeed, it proliferated nuclear weapons technology to North Korea, Iran and Libya during periods of democracy. So much for those who say a democratic Pakistan is in India’s interests.

In the larger context of India-Pakistan relations, Mr. Sharif’s ascent to the position of prime minister is of minimal consequence.  Indeed, more important transitions in power lie ahead in the next couple of years that will impact the India-Pakistan relationship.

The most important of these transitions on the Pakistani side is the end of Gen. Kayani’s tenure as COAS on October 31, 2013.  The Pakistani army has had monopoly over relations with India since the 1958 coup d’état.  This has been true regardless of whether the army or a civilian government was in charge of Pakistan.

The frontrunners for the position of COAS have among them Kayani-loyalists, American favorites, and Kargil veterans alike.  The eventual winner will have a greater say in Pakistan’s relations with India than Mr. Sharif, regardless of the decisiveness of the PML(N)’s democratic mandate.

On this side of the barbed-wire fence, India goes to poll in mid-2014.  This leaves the UPA with very little capital for grand, unilateral gestures that might ultimately impair India’s national interests.  There are too many imponderables at play for conclusive assessments on how the 2014 Lok Sabha elections will play out.  Can the UPA and the Congress retain power, mired as they are in scandals?  If they do, what role will prime minister Manmohan Singh play in a future government?  If strong anti-incumbency trends emerge, what position vis-a-vis Pakistan will a BJP-led coalition take?

Both prime ministers Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh have dealt with Pakistan-perpetrated attacks (the Kandahar hijacking, 13/12, 26/11, among others).  Both inevitably came around to rapprochement with Pakistan.  But if provocations remain abetted, shouldn’t the quality of our response change?

A third, and equally important transition, involves Afghanistan. U.S.-led coalition forces are scheduled to withdraw from a decade-long war in Afghanistan at the end of 2014.  While unresolved quarrels with Afghanistan persist, Pakistan sees the withdrawal of U.S. forces as largely benefiting its cause.  But a U.S. retreat could see the return of thousands of unemployed jihadis whose “talents” are better engaged elsewhere than in Pakistan.  That elsewhere might be Jammu & Kashmir.

An increase in terror-related violence in India, leading up to, and accelerating after U.S. withdrawal in 2014 will indicate that the Pakistani establishment’s animosity towards India remains intact and is about to enter a new phase.  What someone like Nawaz Sharif can do in such a scenario, regardless of honorable intentions, will remain a question mark.  Those in charge of India’s foreign policy, ought to be considering policy options on Pakistan, expecting worst-case scenarios, given lessons learned from history. Democracy or no democracy.

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Hafiz Saeed under house arrest?

Is he is or is he ain’t?

Predictably,  in response to the Data Darbar attacks in Lahore, the government in Punjab made all the right noises about eradicating terrorism from the province.  Earlier, Interior Minister Rehman Malik traded barbs with Punjab CM Shahbaz Sharif on his use of the term “Punjabi Taliban.”  The nomenclature did not sit well with the government in Punjab; the Taliban, they claimed, had no identity and references to Punjab hurt the sentiments of its residents.

Nonetheless, nominal steps were taken to curb extremism in the province.  A news report in the Jang elaborated:

The Punjab Home Department has “banned” 17 organizations; these include Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Sipah-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Tehrik-e-Jafria Pakistan, Tehrik-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammed, Millat-e-Islamiya Pakistan, Islamiya Tehrik-e-Pakistan, Hizb-ul-Tehrir, Jamaat-ul-Ansar, Jamaat-ul-Furqan, Islamic Students Movement, Baluchistan Liberation Army and Jamaat ud-Dawwa.

This list does not include Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), despite statements made by Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, which indicate that the TTP and al-Qaeda have collaborated with Sipah-e-Sahiba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi in Punjab.According to the Home Department, there are approximately 4,000 individuals with relations to these terror groups.  These individuals have been placed under surveillance, per Section 4 of the Anti-Terrorism Act and they have been banned from carrying out such activities. [جنگ]

Almost equally predictably, an editorial in the Jang’s sister publication, The News, went soft when news broke, contrary to previous reports, that the Jamaat ud-Dawwa had not been banned.  The editorial reasons:

The JuD and other organizations may not be behind direct acts of militancy. It is also a fact that they are engaged in many good works that bring solace to many everywhere. Hindu women in Sindh have recently demonstrated in their favour. [The News]

So Hindu women from Sindh demonstrating in JuD’s favor is reason enough to absolve them of the massacre of several hundreds of civilians in the name of religion and state?  Something to keep in mind the next time someone gives you the old “we’re both victims of terror” spiel.  While these events unfold, the federal and state civilian administrations are anxious to demonstrate their capacity for action against terror groups.  PML (N) leader Nawaz Sharif called for a “national conference” on terrorism, which Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani has accepted.

But should it surprise anyone that Messrs. Gilani and Kayani are simply waiting for the storm to blow over?  Prior to this “national conference,” Mr. Gilani was busy ruling out military operations in South Punjab,  while Shahbaz Sharif went even further and denied the existence of the so-called “Punjabi Taliban.”

One wonders what the big purpose of this “national conference” is then.  Half the terror groups that should have been part of an offensive (including the TTP/ al-Qaeda affiliates and JuD) have already been given a clean chit and in any case, there’s not going to be any military action against the groups that did end up making it to the Punjab Home Department’s list of “banned” groups.

A month from now, everything will be forgotten and it will be business-as-usual.  Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

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In a false quarrel, there is no true valor

The “Long March” is at an end.  A banner in the The Dawn proclaims “Mission Accomplished“, in Bush 43-esque vein.  The International Herald Tribune announces a victory to “Justice”.  “It’s a people’s victory”, The Nation declares. People blogged about it on the internet.  Protesters tweeted live as  they marched towards Islamabad.  Others like Tahira Abdullah wept on national television, imploring the (former) Minister for Information to “Save Pakistan”.  On the other side of the Wagah, journalists were at their ignorant, amateur best.  The Hindustan Times called the PML-N leader “Sure shot Sharif”.  Barkah Dutt exalted him as the “Sher-e-Punjab”.

Thankfully, not everyone drank the Rooh Afzah.

This was no battle for democracy.  This was a protest launched by a shrewd politician who saw an opportunity to capitalize on the misdeeds of a bumbling President.  Nawaz Sharif doesn’t care about democracy any more than did Stalin.  Those who took to the streets and endured police assaults only succeeded in supplanting one set of cronies with another.  This should become painfully obvious to the delirious intelligentsia fairly soon.  The issue isn’t whether Sharif can do a better job than Zardari.  Or if Iftikar Chaudhry can bring back the rule of law in Pakistan.  There is something rotten in the State.  Politicians in Pakistan have proven that they are incapable of governance.  Or maybe they just don’t care.  The sense of elation from yesterday’s “victory” is similar to popular sentiments that prevailed when Benazir returned to Pakistan in 2007, and when Musharraf was given his marching orders last year.  However, so monumental was the task of rebuilding the country, and so incompetent were its politicians, that the jubilation quickly turned into despair.  This time will be no different.

Political inertia is already crippling Pakistan socially and economically.  Inflation is close to 20%.  Throw in a projected GDP growth of 3% and the math doesn’t add up.  The issue that should be patently obvious is that at this precarious point in Pakistan’s history, the quarrel shouldn’t be about which Chief Justice serves party interests better or how to settle personal vendettas by launching impromptu uprisings that cripple the state.  Instead, Pakistani politicians should be working to reconstruct the parameters of engagement within the nation in a manner that will allow them to effectively govern, if and when elected.  In addition to common maladies such as poverty, illiteracy and unemployment that plague the subcontinent, Pakistan has to contend with two serious challenges to the writ of State — Talibanization of the frontier provinces and the scourge of terrorism in the heartland.   Nawaz Sharif has already proven, on two separate occasions, that he is incapable of  governing the country.  Zardari and Gilani have done little over the past few months to prove that they are any better.  Unless citizens are able to hold politicians’ feet to the fire and make them accountable for the larger issues of the state, this farce will continue.

Barely a day the “Long March” concluded, a suicide bomber attacked a crowded bus stand in Rawalpindi, killing 15 and injuring several more.  Unless the gravity of the situation in Pakistan is comprehended by politicians and citizens alike, very little will change.

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